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Books: Realism, struggle, faith

Books | Bret Lott's Jewel shows that a novelist can be both fully Christian and fully professional

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999

Author Bret Lott cites two Scripture passages in the frontispiece of his Oprah's Book Club bestseller: "And this is the father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39); and, "How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out" (Romans 11:33).

The protagonist is Jewel Hilburn, wife of a Mississippi lumberman and mother of five. In middle age, she conceives and bears a sixth child, Brenda Kay, who has Down syndrome.

Leston Hilburn, Jewel's husband, has a dream of starting his own lumberyard with the help of his three sons. With the birth of Brenda Kay, Jewel, who as an orphan has always been one to take charge and fix things herself, begins to dream of leaving for California, where there are better educational facilities for children like Brenda Kay. As the competing dreams swirl and clash, burden turns into blessing. The moral center of the book is a demonstration of what commitment and sacrifice really mean.

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Bret Lott develops the dramatic potential of this conflict skillfully, using the conventions of realistic, literary fiction. He employs the first-person narrative point-of-view throughout, which has the advantage of intimacy. The reader gets to know the innermost thoughts of Jewel's heart and sees the development of her character and understanding of life as the story unfolds.

The first half of the novel, set in rural Mississippi, is compelling. Although the pacing lags a bit after the family arrives in Los Angeles, the closing scenes are powerful and the ending is written with true lyrical beauty. Mr. Lott is particularly good with symbols, such as a photograph of the grandfather as a talisman of victory over death and a cigarette lighter as an image of guilt flung away.

Two caveats-some readers may object to any references to sex in fiction. There are a few sex scenes in the book. In my judgment, they are handled discreetly and are essential for plot and character development. There are no Updike-style graphic descriptions.

As to the family dynamics portrayed in the novel: Jewel is a strong-willed female character who takes matters into her own hands; she is a Christian who doesn't always do as she should, and neither does her husband. She drags him and the family off to California. But they don't split up. Then he drags her back to Mississippi. But they don't split up. Finally they come to a place of peaceful resolution and return to California where their Down syndrome daughter is truly better off. Tension creates drama. Jewel eventually comes to a moment of truth about herself and her relationship to her husband. Caught up in the drama of God's unfathomable ways, she finds in the end that Jesus never lets her go.

Many Christian writers are unable to achieve this kind of realism. If they are attempting realistic fiction, their didactic impulse overrides their creative impulse and they end up with wooden characters moved about like chess pieces. Other Christian writers avoid the problem altogether and write escapism.

Today, some secular stories are well written but the content is bad, while some Christian stories display good content but bad writing. Bret Lott has managed to produce a well-written book with a redemptive theme.

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